Origins III: Joseph Kaline
By Philip Becnel
Editor’s Note: Readers will recall that we are running four excerpts from Philip Becnel’s new satirical novel, Freedom City. In it, Becnel envisions a post-Trump America that is a little too much like something out of Orwell. Fortunately, he also envisions a band of merry pranksters who plan to make life awfully uncomfortable for would-be fascists everywhere.
Readers who wish to purchase the complete book may do so here.
It had taken Joseph Kaline ten years to reinvent himself, from an angry, impulsive, shit-stomping, young redneck with delusions of fighting in an imaginary race war, to an unflappably liberal, semi-respectable private investigator working criminal defense cases in one of America’s great, diverse cities: Washington, D.C. Raised in a shotgun house in a blue-collar, alcoholic family outside San Antonio, Joe was whipped nearly to death by his father, a construction foreman; spent his teens in residential treatment facilities, courtesy of social services; and then spent the first couple years of his adulthood roaming the south with various skinhead crews, until a fight outside of Atlanta landed him in jail. There he was beaten repeatedly and raped with a broomstick, but the worst trauma had been to his identity, when the kindness of an African American inmate nicknamed “Rock” made the attacks stop and for the first time in Joe’s life he realized what an ignorant, homicidal asshole he had become, just like his father.
The morning after FD relieved Officer Meyer of his cash, pistol, and electronic equipment, Joe—now with hair like an orangutan, broad of shoulders, resolutely repentant—pulled his blue Toyota Corolla onto Langston Place and wrote on his legal pad, “Hamdi – 9:32 a.m.”
Mr. Langston Hamdi had retained Beach Sands, Esq., who in turn hired Joe to take some photographs of the courtyard and the doorway where Mr. Hamdi was standing when he was arrested. Joe was also supposed to ask Mr. Hamdi about any witnesses who could testify they saw Officer Meyer yank him out of his apartment into the public space of the courtyard. The only problem was that Joe had tried calling Mr. Hamdi a dozen times, and Mr. Hamdi had not returned his calls.
Joe slipped his legal pad into his briefcase, slung the bag over his shoulder, and walked to Mr. Hamdi’s front door. There, he knocked. When there was no answer for over a minute, he knocked again. The curtains of the only window parted, and a round, kind, elderly, bespectacled face blinked at him through the glass.
“Yes?” said the woman.
“I’m here to see Langston Hamdi. I work for his attorney.”
“I’ll see if he’s here.” The face disappeared. There was talking inside. Soon the face reappeared. “He’s not home. Do you have a card?”
Joe reached in his jacket and dug out a card, which bore his name, title, phone number, email address, and his D.C. private detective license number. He wedged the card between the door and the doorjamb. “Please have him call me. Also, I need to take some pictures of your backdoor.”
“If I had a nickel every time a boy asked me that…”
Dirty-minded old ladies: if there was clearer evidence that the world was fundamentally okay, Joe couldn’t think of it.
He walked around the building and entered the courtyard from Ainger Place. It was empty except for a teenage boy in shorts and a wheelchair feeding a flock of pigeons. Joe greeted the boy and watched the winged rats scamper for breadcrumbs. Although the kid was older than Joe’s son, his bare, atrophied legs reminded Joe of Naagesh’s legs: innocent, spindly, the color of café au lait.
When Joe was released from jail, he used what money he had to purchase some backpacking equipment, picked up the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee National Forest, and hiked it all the way to Maine. Along the way he singed off his skinhead tattoos with a red-hot frying pan. In Maine he saw snow for the first time—didn’t like that one bit—and hiked south again to the Blue Ridge Mountains. He intended to continue southward to warmer parts, perhaps to reconnect with his sister back in San Antonio, but along an overlook on Skyline Drive he chanced to meet a rock-climber named Geeta, a stunning, slender, George Mason undergrad from India. It was Geeta who led Joe off his self-loathing purgatory on the mountain and onto the path of a new beginning.
That hopeful path, as it turned out, had been short. Five years later, Donald J. Trump, the personification of all the hatred Joe had rejected, was elected President of the United States, and shortly thereafter Geeta had been forced to return to India. Although Naagesh was a citizen, Joe let her take their son, then two years old, home with her. He would be better off in India, raised by Geeta’s family. Post-Trump America was no place to raise brown kids.
“You a fag?” said the wheelchair-bound boy. “Why you staring at me?
Joe shook his head. “I work for Langston Hamdi’s attorney. Did you see him get arrested a few weeks ago?”
“Naws. I don’t know no ‘Langston Hamdi.’”
The boy tossed the rest of the crumbs to the pigeons and pushed himself to one of the apartments. There was a small ramp. He rapped on the door, it opened, and he wheeled himself inside.
Joe was now alone with the pigeons. He retraced his steps to Ainger Place and counted the doors until he identified the Hamdi home’s backdoor. He snapped a picture. He then took some wider shots of the entire courtyard before returning to the backdoor again for some close-ups.
In his camera’s viewfinder he was startled to see someone looking back at him from the window. It was not the wrinkled, bespectacled face of the foul-mouthed old woman, but the long, square-jawed, masculine face of a twenty-something African American man with dreadlocks jutting out in all directions, not unlike an aloe plant. Joe lowered the camera, but the man was gone. The curtains swayed.
“Motherfucker,” Joe said under his breath.
He took out his phone and pressed the button to redial Mr. Hamdi’s number. He could hear the phone ring once inside the apartment, and then the ringing stopped and on his phone he heard, again, the familiar greeting.
“Hi, this is Carl Kasell of National Public Radio’s ‘Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!’ Ef-dee made me do this.” Here the unmistakably white, baritone radio announcer cleared his throat and did his best Tupac Shakur impersonation. “’Thug for life, beyatch! Yeah, nigga, thug life, from now until for mother-fuckin’ forever. Have-nots in this, motherfucker—’ Please leave a message!”
“You can avoid me if you want, Mr. Hamdi, but you’re the one paying me.”
Joe hung up, snapped a couple more pictures, stowed his camera back in the bag, and returned to his car. His card was gone from Mr. Hamdi’s front door.
Joe had three other stops to make before he returned to his home, which was in Arlington, just across the Potomac River, in Virginia. There he would do some online research and write reports until it was time to eat dinner, have his weekly Skype chat with Geeta, jerk off, and go to bed. Joe was a simple man.
He had been a private investigator for two years, and Mr. Hamdi’s case was his first for Beach Sands. After following Geeta to Northern Virginia, he applied to George Mason University too. As a former ward of the State of Texas, his tuition was fully paid for. He majored in Cultural Studies with a minor in English. Shortly before he and Geeta graduated, a classmate happened to go on a blind date with a private investigator named Phillip Nichols. The classmate and Phillip hadn’t hit it off, but she started working cases for him during her senior year. When she graduated and got a “real” job, Phillip needed someone else to work her cases, so Joe jumped on the opportunity. It turned out that he loved being an investigator. Every day was different, and the people he met were in turns squalid, resplendently flawed, and (in his assessment of humanity) perfect. But his favorite part was that for every person he helped to keep out of jail he was giving something back for all the years he spent espousing ignorant bullshit. He believed strongly that everyone—well, almost everyone—deserved a second chance.
His next stop was on Chesapeake Street, Southeast, just on the D.C. side of the border along Southern Avenue. From Woodland Terrace, he turned right on Alabama Avenue and stopped at a light in front of the MPD’s Seventh District Station. Out front a pugnacious white cop was standing next to an illegally parked, shit-brown Chevy Cavalier, waving his arms hysterically at a group of other officers. They looked at Joe. He gave them the finger. The light turned green. He continued down Alabama and had only traveled a block when his phone chirped: an email.
The secret to being a successful private investigator, as taught to Joe by veteran investigator Phillip Nichols, was very simple: keep your phone alerts on and respond to attorneys immediately.
“Attorneys are the most unreasonable bitches on the planet,” Phillip said on Joe’s first day, “but when it comes right down to it they don’t know shit about what investigators do and they’re happy enough if you just respond to their emails quickly.”
Joe glanced at the phone, one eye still on the road. The email subject was “Officer John G. Meyer, Metropolitan Police Department.” Joe didn’t recognize the email address. At the next light he read the message.
“Dear Private Detective Joseph Kaline, The attached link contains evidence that the arresting officer for one of your impending cases is a perjurer and a racist.” It was signed, “Malcolm X” and contained a postscript: “Thank you for your diligence.”
There was a link to a file-sharing site. Once past Suitland Parkway, Joe pulled over and downloaded the zipped file. In it there was a massive MP4 file, a video. He would need his computer to view that. But he was able to view some of the other files from the cockpit of his Corolla. There were pictures, clearly still-shots of the video, showing several cops beating up a boy in the courtyard of Woodland Terrace. Joe didn’t know what Officer Meyer looked like, but the boy looked familiar. He looked like the boy he had met earlier, the one in the wheelchair. Only in the video the kid was standing up. Other files included a complaint from a civil lawsuit, pages of a deposition transcript, and a membership card for a group called “Cops for Comeup-Pence.”
The membership card alone was enough for Joe to condemn Officer Meyer forever. The group was a known fascist law enforcement club, where racist cops got together and did circle jerks to the regime. Mike Pence was a fucking Nazi, and nobody was surer of this than Joe Kaline—since he had been one too. He had the scars to prove it: one on his upper right arm and another on the back of his left shoulder. Shit, that had hurt. He had bled from Nantahala National Forest all the way through the Great Smokey Mountains. Now the scars of his old skinhead tattoos only burned when he was angry, and nothing made him angrier than willful, unabashed ignorance.
He decided to head home early. His other cases could wait a day. There was something special about Langston Hamdi—Joe could feel it—not in his scars but in his damaged, earnest heart. He was going to bust this case open, and in the deal he would take one step closer to redemption.